116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES - When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the state one year ago today, Gov. Kim Reynolds assured Iowans her administration was ready.
'I want Iowans to know that I am confident that we are prepared, that we take this situation seriously and we will manage it responsibly,” Reynolds said during a news conference after Iowa's first three cases were confirmed in Johnson County.
A year later, Iowa ranks in the bottom third of states for the most critical public health comparisons, but the state's economy and state finances appear to be strong. And, partly as a result, opinions on the state's pandemic response are mixed.
Over the course of the pandemic, over 5,500 Iowans have died of COVID-19-related causes.
As of Friday, Iowa's rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita was the 15th-highest in the country, federal statistics show.
Iowa's rate of COVID-19 cases per capita fares worse: ninth-highest in the country over the course of the pandemic, according to the federal data.
Early in the pandemic, Reynolds ordered schools and many non-essential businesses closed. Schools never came back in person to finish the 2019-2020 academic year, but by late spring and early summer, Reynolds began allowing businesses to reopen with restrictions.
Reynolds resisted issuing a shelter-at-home order and, for the first eight months of the pandemic, resisted a public face mask requirement.
But by November, when COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Iowa began to surge to unprecedented levels, Reynolds issued a limited mask requirement and reenacted some mitigation steps for businesses.
Throughout the pandemic, Reynolds declined to heed the advice of public health and infectious disease experts in Iowa and the federal government who called for stronger mitigation strategies. Reynolds regularly expressed her confidence in Iowans to 'do the right thing” without a government mandate.
Throughout the pandemic, Reynolds also regularly said her duty as governor is to balance the need to protect both Iowans' lives and their livelihoods, meaning she feels compelled to institute public health measures but not go so far as to disrupt the economy.
Now, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths all in steady decline since that tragic winter surge, Reynolds has lifted the public face mask requirement and nearly all restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.
When asked recently to assess her administration's handling of the state's pandemic response over the past year, Reynolds praised her staff, all state agencies and employees, public partners and nonprofits that have worked on state response efforts.
'Every day we learned something new about COVID-19,” she said. 'I'm really proud of the herculean team effort that I think we've put in place to help serve Iowans through this really difficult time.”
When it comes to independent assessments of the state's pandemic response, public health and medical experts were critical while business leaders were far more approving.
Dr. Austin Baeth, an internal medicine physician in Des Moines, provided a harsh assessment of the state's response.
'Generally inadequate and inept and ignorant of science,” Baeth said. 'It was clear that (the state's) public health policy was actually prioritizing business over public health.”
Baeth was one of the organizers of a statewide group of physicians who in early August held a news conference at the Iowa Capitol to implore Reynolds to institute a public face mask requirement. In assessing the state's pandemic response, Baeth referred to the national health data that show Iowa performing poorly compared with other states.
'The numbers don't lie. We could have done much better, and the majority of states in America did much better than we did in saving lives. And the pandemic isn't over,” Baeth said. 'I understand the need to balance people's lives with public health. But I think it's important to remember there is no livelihood without life. And I don't know about you, but I would rather be out of work than be dead.”
Besides being a physician, Baeth also a restaurant owner. He has a pizza place near Drake University.
'We also suffer financially from business restrictions,” Baeth said. 'But we understand it and we would rather take a hit financially than be party to infecting and killing people.”
Dan Gervich, who is retired after working for nearly 40 years as an epidemiologist and infectious disease physician in Des Moines, also offered a harsh criticism.
He, too, pointed to the data in which Iowa compares unfavorably with other states - and in which the United States compares unfavorably with many other nations.
'I think when we look back on this, you would have to say that Team USA and Team Iowa are losers,” Gervich said. 'If the governor was a coach of a major sports team, a major Hawkeye or major Cyclone sports team, she'd be gone.”
Like Baeth, Gervich said he understands the need for government leaders to thread the needle between protecting the public health and the economy.
'What leaders - governors, presidents - should be trying to do is to try to find a theoretic sweet spot, minimizing mortality and economic impact. Try to find a sweet spot in there,” Gervich said.
Many Iowa business leaders feel Reynolds did find that sweet spot.
Few industries have suffered more economic damage and faced more state restrictions during the pandemic than restaurants and bars. Yet Jessica Dunker, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association, praised Reynolds' administration and myriad state agencies for how they have worked to help businesses attempt to stay afloat.
'From the very beginning we felt the governor's office was trying to weigh the business' interests with public health,” Dunker said. 'We were asking for financial assistance on March 18, the day after (Reynolds ordered many businesses closed), and the Iowa Economic Development Authority had a grant program out in 10 days. That's unbelievable when you stop and think about it. …
'You look at that level of state cooperation, they were really committed to try to keep businesses surviving. … They went to the absolute brink of what their legislative limit was.”
Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said businesses across Iowa were comfortable adhering to Reynolds' public health orders. Ralston said many took matters into their own hands once the pandemic hit Iowa by seeking out personal protective equipment and instituting safe public health practices.
'All the mitigation strategies that the state and county health departments talk about, folks put those in place and most of them still have them in place,” Ralston said.
The state public health department has had its ups and downs over the course of the pandemic. While the state's website that publishes the latest state pandemic data has been rated highly and compared favorably with other states', the department has changed its data reporting methods on multiple occasions, making it harder for Iowas to keep track.
A former department spokeswoman also has sued the governor's staff, alleging she was pushed out after fulfilling media requests for pandemic information. The governor has denied the allegations and the lawsuit has not gone to trial.
Department deputy director Sarah Reisetter and state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati were prominent figures in the early public presentations on the state's pandemic response. They since have been largely replaced in that public role by Kelly Garcia, who in June was named the department's interim director.